Like all those incarcerated in Military Prison 6, south of Haifa and near Atlit, conscientious objector Natan Blanc wears Marine camouflage fatigues. Nothing could be more symbolic. Join the army and see America − in Prison 6.
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Reveille is at 4:45 A.M., after which the day progresses from one roll call to another. Blanc works in the kitchen. On Saturday morning two weeks ago, the heat in the prison was high-noon oppressive. The interview with Blanc was conducted by phone. He sounded eerily calm. It was his 145th day of incarceration. The next day, Sunday, May 19, he told me, was cause for celebrating “exactly half a year since the first time I reported to the Israel Defense Forces National Induction Center.”
More on this topic: IDF to release Israeli conscientious objector Natan Blanc
Blanc will complete his current sentence on June 6, with 178 days of imprisonment behind him. To my rhetorical question of how he was feeling, he replied, “Besides the fact that it’s hard to get used to the severe heat, I’m doing fine. When I reported for my current incarceration, the 10th, I was disappointed about once more facing 28 long days in jail. But the first week went by quite fast, and the second will, too. So, if we ignore the heat for a moment, life in Prison 6 is pretty easy.”
Blanc spends most of his time in the kitchen, making salads, and polishing and shining the utensils (“I have become an expert in scouring frying pans”). “When I first entered the prison we had a television in the mess hall and were allowed to watch 20 minutes each evening. At the moment we don’t have a TV or a radio. We get [mass-circulation] newspapers every day − Yedioth Ahronoth, Maariv, sometimes Israel Hayom − so I know what’s happening.”
Blanc tried to keep a diary but found that he was too busy to devote himself to daily writing. He reads voraciously. He recently finished Amos Oz’s 1991 novel “The Third Condition,” which addresses the issue of messianism against the backdrop of the first intifada. He then plunged immediately into Joseph Heller’s mordant 1974 novel “Something Happened.”
His grandmother, Judy Blanc, gave him the collected works of Berthold Brecht, in English, as a present. And just for the fun of it, and because he loved the Harry Potter books as a boy, he bought J.K. Rowling’s novel for adults (“The Casual Vacancy”) on his last furlough.
In November 2012, Blanc chose to refuse to obey the order to perform active service in the IDF. It is unconscionable, he believes, to serve in the army of the State of Israel, whose government has chosen consciously to continue the occupation and the settlement project.
“As elected officials, the members of the government are under no obligation to spell out their vision for the country’s future, and they have the right to pursue this bloody cycle with no end in sight. But we, as citizens, as human beings, have a moral duty to refuse to play this cynical game,” he wrote in his declaration of refusal. Blind obedience, he emphasized, is not always the right solution.
Blanc turned 20 on May 17. That morning, one of the cooks managed to make a cake out of ingredients in the main kitchen. He laid out cold cuts, and all of Blanc’s friends from the kitchen and the prison came to congratulate him on this milestone occasion.
Are you well liked in the prison?
“I think so. Comparatively speaking, I am a person who manages to get along and be well-enough liked. I was loved at home and in my circle of friends. I think people should learn to love themselves as much as they can.”
He doesn’t have a girlfriend these days, and there are times during the day when he misses his friends. Sometimes he longs for his parents, David and Naomi. He speaks to them almost every day; they visit him every two weeks, and he spends the time between periods of incarceration at home.
What do you do at moments of crisis or anger?
“I remind myself that you don’t have to take everything too seriously, and especially not the hard things in life. When I feel low, I remind myself that I am doing the right thing, that I had no other choice and that there was no other moral act I could have chosen. I do not forget that I am in jail by choice. I have learned to enjoy the little things – for example, conversations with other prisoners. We have a lot of laughs. Yesterday I enjoyed the cake my friends brought me for my birthday. You can find plenty of good things in prison, it’s just a matter of locating them.”
How do the other prisoners respond to the fact you are a conscientious objector?
“Some of the prisoners here were delighted to be drafted and were highly motivated, but during their service they ran into difficulties, usually for personal reasons, such as economic hardship at home, and they went AWOL or deserted. They take a great interest in my private story. For many of them, this is the first time they have met someone like me, who espouses views so different from theirs. Quite a few prejudices about left-wingers were quickly shattered. Most of them are angry and disappointed at the IDF for not understanding their problems. They treat me well and we have actually become friends.”
‘Go all the way’
“Natan is very stubborn − already as a boy he knew what he wanted,” Judy Blanc, 84, says. A well-known veteran left-wing activist in Jerusalem, including in Women in Black, she played a large part in shaping her grandson’s worldview. “She is brimming with energy and vitality, and is very sharp,” Natan says. “She always finds something in common with the person opposite her. She’s right: I am stubborn and always stick to my opinions.”
He never knew his grandfather, Prof. Haim Blanc, a linguist who was a world-renowned expert in Arabic dialects: “From my childhood I have been interested in my grandfather, who broke off his studies at Harvard, came to Israel in the War of Independence as a volunteer, fought in the war, was wounded and became blind. I wonder what he would say about this confrontation between conscience and the law, which has been forced on me.”
Judy, who discerns resemblances between Natan and his late grandfather, answers that question: “I think Haim would be proud of his grandson Natan. He would say that Natan thinks for himself. A person needs to decide what’s important for him and stick to it, go all the way with it. When it comes to that, grandfather and grandson are very much alike.”
Blanc waited expectantly on his birthday. He had a feeling that his family and friends would surprise him. At 4 P.M. they gathered outside the prison and held up posters with birthday greetings. Balloons, too. “It was so moving,” Blanc says. “A friend and I saw the whole thing from the prison. We even waved to them with a towel and they waved back. They played music and sang birthday songs. I didn’t get to celebrate properly, but it was very special, considering the fact that I am incarcerated. I am so proud and filled with warm feelings for my family and friends, who are continuing to demonstrate and act for my release.”
They are indeed active. On May 16, 36 lecturers from the law faculties in local universities sent a letter to IDF Military Advocate General Brig. Gen. Danny Efroni, calling for Blanc to be released in June after serving 10 consecutive terms, in order to avoid unnecessary harm to his freedom of conscience. A petition calling for his release can be found at freenatanblanc.wordpress.com (Hebrew and English). The site also contains information about demonstrations held for Blanc, and about Israeli and international media reports about him, including articles in English daily The Guardian.
As of this week, Blanc’s supporters are running two international campaigns on his behalf, and have also called on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to intercede for Blanc. In the early 1970s, Kerry, then a discharged soldier, was active against the war in Vietnam and called on Congress to end the unjust conflict. The expectation is that Kerry will take the matter up with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and will find a connection between his own antiwar activity in the ’70s and Blanc’s stance. (Kerry, it should be noted, fought in Vietnam as a lieutenant and was awarded three citations for bravery.) The approach to Kerry is being made through Jewish Voice for Peace, an American organization whose members “are inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace and social justice,” according to its website.
Prof. Kobi Peter (Peterzil), head of the department of mathematics at the University of Haifa, is a friend of the Blanc family and a colleague of Natan’s father, the mathematician Prof. David Blanc. Peter has known Natan since he was born.
“It’s hard to know if he is the ‘last Mohican,’” Peter says. “Maybe his actions will give rise to something. He is doing what he feels deep inside. He is neither arrogant nor prideful, and has no desire for fame. Nor does he think, ‘I know better than others.’
“He seems to have given the matter a great deal of thought before launching his struggle,” Peter adds. “I see it as climbing a high mountain, but we have to remember that he did not travel to a distant land to find himself: He was inducted at the age of 19, after spending a year doing community service. In his declaration of refusal, he speaks directly into the camera and explains how he perceives citizenship, which for him entails responsibility for Israel’s actions in the territories for the past 46 years. His friends are probably telling him, ‘Let it go, don’t be so grim. Take an office job at HQ or get a mental health discharge.’
“Natan, who views citizenship as a binding obligation, is as stubborn as his parents. He is made of the stuff of heroes. Part of what he is doing is aimed at opening a door and laying a foundation for recognition of a conscientious objector’s right to refuse to serve.”
‘Lying is wrong’
Natan Blanc is well aware that the IDF never releases people for reasons of conscience, other than reservists. Why, then, I ask him, is he wasting energy when there is no way he will change the army’s approach? Isn’t it time to climb down?
“From the outset of my struggle, my aim was not to preach in favor of one approach or another,” he says. “I repeat: My reason for refusing is one of conscience. The option of seeing a mental health officer in order to get a discharge, because it’s tough for me in prison, or for some psychological reason, is not relevant. I also think that people who take that route are making a mistake.
“Throughout, my actions have been dictated solely by my conscience. It is essential to be obstinate and speak your truth, down to the last comma. That is the only thing that can influence society when it must decide on issues of principle and forgo manipulation. I am against lying. Lying is wrong in every situation − and especially in the case of military service. The IDF really likes to get people who refuse to serve to say, ‘I am depressed-crazy-handicapped, etc.’ So it is important to underscore that my refusal does not stem from mental reasons.”
Do you view your refusal as a type of civic patriotism?
“I don’t like the word patriotism. It somehow connects with love of homeland, and with nationalistic viewpoints that produce more and more wars. I don’t know whether my refusal supports the continued existence of the Jewish state in the territories of the Land of Israel. Let’s say that was not the aim of my refusal. I was out to act according to my conscience, in part for the good of society.”
You could advance your political goals in a civic framework. Why continue within the military framework?
“The military framework was forced upon me, just as it is forced upon every young Israeli by law. I had no choice, and I am being forced to be tried time and again by officers at the induction center, though in the future I might face a court-martial. I did not choose this. As for acting within a civic framework, obviously I will do that.”
Blanc did his year of community service in an organization founded by the businessman Erel Margalit, now a Labor MK, aimed at empowering weak families. Blanc was active in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, built after 1967. In the morning he helped secular children who were having difficulty in school; in the afternoon, he did the same in an ultra-Orthodox school, where he was dubbed “Reb Natan.”
At the end of the year, on November 19, 2012, he reported to the induction center. That was five days after the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the commander of the military wing of Hamas, an operation that marked the start of Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip. Blanc hoped he would be able to persuade the army to allow him to do national service, perhaps in Magen David Adom (the local version of the Red Cross), where he had been a volunteer during his high school period. But the army said no. Blanc refused to put on a uniform and was sentenced to his first term in prison. Since then, he has reported back to the center at the end of each prison term. He will do so again in two weeks, after completing his 10th term. No one knows what the IDF has in store for him.
Is there a stage at which one adjusts to life behind bars, and it becomes a type of routine?
“Yes, one can talk about a routine. Sad though it is, my stay in Prison 6 is starting to resemble compulsory service. What weighs down on day-to-day life is the uncertainty about when it all will end and what they are planning for me afterward. That’s the hard part.”
Are you ready for the possibility that your case, which the IDF is dealing with by what it calls “special means,” might end, as in the case of Jonathan Ben-Artzi − Sara Netanyahu’s nephew − and other refuseniks, who were court-martialed for political refusal and, in some cases, spent almost two years in prison?
“I am prepared for that mentally, but I hope it will not come to that and that the army authorities will have the good sense to put an end to my case without all that chaos. If I have no choice, I will face a military court, and if necessary I will spend a year in prison. I hope we succeed, and that I will not have to be imprisoned for such a lengthy period. Of course it scares me, but on the other hand, when it comes to principles of conscience, not even a prolonged prison term will change my stance. There are more important things than my own personal comfort or the price this exacts from me.”
Are you not disappointed by the apathy of the Israeli public and by the fact that yours is a lone voice?
“My refusal is not intended to get more soldiers to do the same, but to emphasize that, as an Israeli citizen, I acted according to my conscience. The fact that I am alone just now in thinking this way and acting on it is also fine. I am disappointed to some extent in Israeli society − the fact that much of it does not agree about the actions that need to be taken to stop the occupation and our rule over another nation.”
Not a political objector
Blanc calls himself a conscientious objector and emphasizes that he is not a political objector. “The IDF distinguishes between a selective conscientious objector, who refuses to serve only in the IDF (though not in other armies) and a pacifist conscientious objector, who refuses to serve in all armies. The IDF likes to differentiate between the political objector whose aim is to oppose the government’s policy, and the conscientious objector, who wants to spare himself from taking part in actions that conflict with his conscience. That differentiation is divorced from reality. If you look at the dry legal definition, I am closer to conscientious objection than to what is defined as political refusal.”
The IDF is not accepting the solution Blanc has proposed: three years of service in Magen David Adom. “They made it clear that the option of civilian service is not relevant here. From their point of view, it makes no difference whether you refuse because you feel like backpacking abroad or because you want to do national service.”
In contrast to most of his high school classmates, Blanc never dreamed of being a combat soldier. He started pondering the question of army service in 10th grade: “In December 2008, when the fighting erupted in Gaza, in Operation Cast Lead, my doubts only increased, but I still wasn’t sure I would refuse. Even after the preliminary call-up order arrived, I continued to wrestle with myself. The moment at which I grasped clearly that I would be a conscientious objector came just before I was supposed to embark on a year of national service through the Mahanot Ha’olim youth movement, in which I was a member for years. That track was supposed to take us into a Nahal paramilitary brigade, to do a year of civilian service before entering the IDF. I could not commit to doing army service. I left and did volunteer work in the community through a different organization.”
How old were you when you developed your political beliefs?
“At the time of the Gaza disengagement, in 2005, I was a curious and interested 12-year-old in elementary school. I tried to form an opinion about the evacuation of the Jewish settlements from the Strip. I was a member of Mahanot Ha’olim, which is, relatively speaking, a politically oriented youth movement. We held discussions about these issues. My political thinking took shape over time. Toward the end of juniorhigh I was already an involved political activist, and for a short time I was a member of Banki [Youth Communist League of Israel].”
Did going to demonstrations with your parents influence you?
“My parents took me to demonstrations when I was a boy. I was 6 years old and sat on Dad’s shoulders at a demonstration in Haifa. I remember going with Dad when volunteers renovated homes in the Khalisa neighborhood [an Arab section of Haifa]. That had a great effect on me, on top of which there were many children of my age there. But attending demonstrations with my parents does not constitute a significant element in my development as a political individual. If anything, my activity with Ta’ayush [an Israeli-Palestinian group that advocates nonviolence] during the Palestinian olive harvest has influenced me. You get to meet Palestinian people and discover there is no reason for the hatred and the racism in the air. I was 11 when I went with Dad on my first Palestinian olive harvest. That was meaningful. Going to demonstrations did not contribute in this regard. I am not fond of demonstrations. There is a lot of shouting and very little talking there.”
I get the impression that your mother is ambivalent about the character of your struggle. What do your parents think about your refusal to serve in the army?
“At first it was hard for them. They both served in the Intelligence Corps and they do not fully agree with what I am doing. Over time they came to support me as their son, irrespective of their identification with my struggle. It took time for them to understand that maybe, despite everything, [displaying] civic courage is the right thing, and that I had no other choice.
“Today, they understand that, at least from my point of view, I am taking the right steps. I have two sisters who support me. One did not serve in the army and the other one served in intelligence, like our parents, and she is less positive about what I am doing. It’s funny that the whole family served in intelligence and two are refuseniks.”
‘A regular child’
Natan Blanc was born in May 1993, in Jerusalem, the youngest child of David and Naomi, a lecturer in literature at Oranim − School of Education of the Kibbutz Movement. One sister, Ayelet, 26, is employed in high-tech; the other, Hamutal, 23, is doing volunteer work in Tanzania. In 2005, David and Naomi became the foster parents of a 7-year-old boy, who lived with the family for five years.
The Blancs moved to Haifa when Natan was three. The kindergarten teacher called the parents in for a talk and told them their boy didn’t like being told that something was not allowed. “He was a sociable boy who played chess and read a lot, but all in all he was a regular child,” his mother relates.
At this point, Judy interjects. “Natan was not so ordinary as a boy. He was smart and sweet at the same time, and thought for himself.” Naomi smiles. “Natan is his father’s son. When David and I quarrel sometimes, Natan takes his father’s side.”
Blanc attended the Open School in Haifa and went on to junior high in Reut, a community school for the arts, in the film track. He made four short movies; his graduation project, “Friends of Cancer,” was about a sick girl and her relations with her classmates.
Many left-wingers who attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the 1970s have fond memories of the home of Haim and Judy Blanc. One of them is Smadar Nahav, who founded Tsofen, a high-tech nonprofit center in Nazareth, with the aim of integrating Israel’s Arab citizens in the computer-technology industry.
Nahav is married to Noam Kaminer, a historian, scientist and veteran left-wing activist who was one of the 160 soldiers who refused to serve in the first Lebanon war. Their son, Matan, was one of those court-martialed in 2003 − along with Shimri Tsameret, Noam Bahat and Adam Maor − for refusing to serve in the IDF as long as it is an occupation army, and spent time in jail.
Nahav met Judy and Haim when she was a student at the Hebrew University. “The first meetings with left-wing people were held at their home in [Jerusalem’s affluent] Talbieh neighborhood. Judy was the moving spirit.
“It was an inspiring home,” Nahav says, “where people talked about the possibilities of a common future for us and the Palestinians. It was in their home that the Committee for Solidarity with Birzeit University and the Committee Against the War in Lebanon were formed. I joined the left under the inspiration of Haim and Judy.”
At this stage of the conversation, de Malach starts to become worried. “Natan is not brainwashed, and I don’t want the article to create the impression that his grandmother and his parents are from Hadash and Women in Black, and that whole left scene. “Natan is an independent entity. In the last demonstration outside Prison 6, he heard his supporters shouting that ‘the IDF is a terrorist organization,’ and he told me on the phone that he was very upset by that.”
I asked David Blanc whether he fears for his son. “The IDF is not the army of the czar,” he replied. “In the end, a solution will be found. Natan is not a draft dodger and is not looking for shortcuts. He wants to serve the country and conclude his service on the same day that the members of his graduating class are discharged from the IDF.
“I don’t think the army will break him. If they discharge him within a reasonable time, he will do service in Magen David Adom. In the meantime, he is waiting and has registered to do a matriculation exam in physics.”
Judy Blanc is a beautiful woman, not least because of the vitality she projects and her warm, direct gaze. She was introduced to Haim Blanc by his friend, the poet T. Carmi; she was then a young woman who was studying history.
She and Haim knew each other for many years, having been friends before they became a couple. That occurred after he was wounded and returned to the United States for rehabilitation. They were married in Israel in 1954.
“Haim was stable and strong and stubborn,” Judy says. “I loved him. He was somewhat aloof but very much loved children and dogs.” His son David recalls that he was a hands-on, loving father who told him bedtime stories. Judy and Haim had three children: Sara, a psychologist; David; and Jeremiah Blanc, who is involved in wastewater treatment.
Admiring the grandfather
One of Haim Blanc’s admirers is Sasson Somekh, professor emeritus of modern Arab literature at Tel Aviv University and an Israel Prize laureate (2005). “I had the privilege to meet a true genius and to be his friend for years,” he says of Blanc.
Somekh even devotes a chapter of his 2008 volume of memoirs, “Call it Dreaming” (in Hebrew), to his friendship with the linguist. This week, Somekh said, “I don’t personally know his grandson, Natan Blanc, but I see him as a very positive force, if not a national hero. It is clear that we need someone who will stick to his guns and not be afraid. People will call him a traitor, and so forth, but he has no fear. He is healthy for us and for the Israeli society.”
According to Somekh, the chapter about Haim Blanc is the loveliest in the memoir. “He was a salient left-wing person who came from a liberal milieu at Harvard,” he explained. “He completed his undergraduate studies in linguistics at Harvard under the tutelage of Roman Jakobson, one of the greatest linguists of our time.
“Blanc submitted a research paper on the influence of the Slavic languages on Yiddish,” he adds. “Within three years, in 1953, he completed his doctoral studies at the Hebrew University, which focused on the Druze dialect in Western Galilee and Mount Carmel. And he did it all as a blind man.”
There are many who still recall Blanc’s tall figure walking in Jerusalem and on the Hebrew University campus with his German Shepherd guide dog. Somekh writes of his “distinctive personality which radiates friendship and warmth,” adding that Blanc could also be gruff and impatient in an argument about matters related to the Hebrew language.
Haim Blanc was born in 1926 in Czernowitz (then in Romania, now part of Ukraine) to parents of Russian-Ukrainian origin. He was educated in Paris, to where his parents had immigrated. In the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of the war, the family moved to New York. He eventually went on to Harvard, but his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. From 1944-1946, he served as the commander of an infantry unit in Germany. Because of his linguistic fluency (he spoke French, Russian, Yiddish, English and Hebrew), he was appointed a liaison officer with the French army in occupied Austria.
Afterward, he resumed his studies, but when the Israeli War of Independence broke out, he boarded a ship for Haifa and was taken directly to an army base, where he was issued a uniform and given the rank of second lieutenant.
In an interview with Army Radio in 1971, Blanc related that he had encountered no difficulty in making the transition from the pastoral Harvard scene to being an officer in the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Haganah (the prestate underground Jewish militia).
During the second truce, in July 1948, Blanc’s unit was sent to reinforce the Harel Brigade, in the Judean Hills. They took up positions in the police station at Hartuv, on the road to Jerusalem; he served for a few weeks and even went on furlough in Jerusalem.
A normal life
One evening, mortar fire struck their position and he suffered a head wound. Shrapnel struck him in both eyes. In the Army Radio interview, he recalled, “I felt a strong blow to the head. Shrapnel penetrated the right side of my head. I felt a powerful blow and the blood hemorrhaging. I tried to give orders to the soldiers, but my deputy told me to lie down and he covered my eyes with gauze.”
It was not until a few weeks later, when he was on the way to the port of Haifa, heading home to New York, that a physician informed him that he was irrecoverably blind. The way Blanc coped with the disaster is nothing short of astonishing. He decided to lead a normal life. He was treated in a New York institute and prepared for a sightless life. His family and friends were there for him; he could not have done it alone.
Despite the difficulties, the need to learn Braille and to have academic material read to him, he became a professor and a distinguished linguist. He married and raised a family.
Blanc returned to Harvard in 1958 and a research project entitled, “Communal Dialects in Baghdad,” about language usage by Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Iraqi capital; his study was published by Harvard University Press.
Somekh notes in his book that researching the Iraqi dialects required not only a stay in Baghdad, which was not possible, but also interviewing “witnesses” whom Blanc met in the United States, and transcribing unerringly what they said. Blanc, who suffered from arteriosclerosis, died in 1984, aged 58.
For her part, de Malach finds the public exposure her family is experiencing excruciatingly difficult. She is from Kibbutz Revivim, in the Negev, and describes herself as shy and modest.
“Natan’s refusal thrust me into all kinds of places,” she notes. “I am ready to demonstrate and visit him, but the public exposure is hard for me. Not everyone is aware of this part of my life. Certainly I am proud of it, but I do not want to be colored in left-wing political hues because my son is a refusenik.”
In fact, Natan, too, will be happy to abandon the political struggles after he is released from prison. “I want to disengage from this whole political thing and get into science,” he says.
“Politics will always remain part of my identity and my occupations,” he admits. “I hope I will be able to do my national service in Magen David Adom or anywhere else the IDF will approve, and after that I want to study physics or subjects related to technology.”
The Egyptian connection
The act of a lone individual can have a powerful effect. Natan Blanc’s act is resonating widely. Some Haredim admire him. Right-wing activists are also waiting to see how the IDF decides in his case. And he even has supporters in Egypt.
The media reports about Blanc’s latest prison term produced two short posts on the Haredi site Hadrei Hadarim. “My Haredi friends, we can learn something from the secular fellow − hats off to the fellow,” one post said. The other added, “If only we could show the same dedication − not for his reasons, but for ours.”
The army’s decision concerning Blanc is also relevant for young right-wing activists. A discharge will constitute a precedent, and the army will no longer be able to act against soldiers whose conscience does not allow them to evacuate settlers in the territories.
In April, a few Egyptian peace activists demonstrated in Talaat Harb Square, Cairo, calling for Blanc’s release. This is documented on the website of Maikel Nabil Sanad, a 28-year-old Egyptian social activist and blogger, who was the first conscientious objector in Egypt and conducted a 130-day hunger strike. Egyptian law does not recognize the right of citizens to refuse to serve for reasons of religion or conscience. Photographs show peace activists carrying leaflets, calling for Blanc’s immediate release. Blanc, for his part, was happy to hear about the Egyptian peaceniks and had his photo taken holding pictures of his supporters in Cairo.
Jonathan Ben-Artzi, militant pacifist
From the age of 17, Jonathan Ben-Artzi conducted one of the longest struggles ever against the IDF. It began with a letter he wrote to the induction authorities declaring that he was a pacifist. The letter got him a deferral for a year, in the course of which he appeared twice before “conscience committees.” Ultimately, in August 2001, he was issued an order to report for active service.
During his legal struggle, Ben-Artzi was sentenced to prison terms seven times, accumulating 196 days behind bars. The eighth time he was hauled before a military court, which sentenced him to a few months in prison. “I went to the Military Appeals Court, but it left the punishment intact. All this lasted for about a year, during which I was in detention at an education base in Galilee,” he relates. In 2005, he petitioned the High Court of Justice, requesting official recognition as a conscientious objector. He was finally discharged not as such, nor as a pacifist, but on the grounds that he was unfit and lacked motivation to serve in the IDF.
Now 30, he is a mathematician (he obtained his Ph.D. from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island) and teaches at Cambridge University in England. He is attached to Israel and occasionally visits his parents, Ofra and Matania Ben-Artzi, who supported his battle against the IDF unreservedly. “I live in London, but that is temporary,” he says. “I have Israeli citizenship and I am part of what is happening in Israel.” In his last visit, not long ago, he used public transportation and was shocked at the sight of young men and women in uniform and bearing arms.
Ben-Artzi is from a well-known Israeli family. His father, who is a professor of mathematics in the Einstein Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the brother of Sara Netanyahu, a psychologist and the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; of Haggai Ben-Artzi, a lecturer in Jewish thought who lives in the settlement of Beit Eil; and of Amatzia Ben-Artzi, a former combat pilot, now in high-tech, who lives in the United States.
Ben-Artzi knew at the age of 16 that he was a pacifist and that he would not serve in the IDF or any other army. A decade on, he sees his struggle against the army authorities as a sacrifice. “I did not choose it, it was forced on me; but I am proud of what I did,” he says. “Certainly I paid a personal price, but I did something I believe in and is important. It is hard for me to gauge the mental price. I am not capable of being my own psychologist. From a distance of years I see that the struggle was just. There is not a single thing I would change if I had to go through it again. Well, actually I might behave more assertively and more militantly than I did. I have no doubt that I would not try to find other ways to cope with the army, which did nothing less than persecute me. It’s true that it took up time in which I could have done other things, but I have no regrets.”
What was the hardest part?
“When you are released from prison – after 30 days, let’s say – you are filled with hope that this was your last time in incarceration. But then you are informed that you have to go back. It’s a real downer. Again you have to go through the checks when you enter the prison, and the chain of accompanying events, such as what you are allowed and not allowed to take in. And there is a moment when you change into the prison uniform. It’s not easy.
“A more important point, which I understood over the years,” he continues, “is how cruel it is of the IDF authorities to place an 18-19-year-old youngster who is refusing to serve in the position of an educated adult. The IDF expects you to be a learned philosopher so that you will be able to explain the worldview or the way of life that underlies your refusal.
“It is impossible to expect that the objector will have coherent, articulate opinions, which will exactly match the spiel that the members of the committee expect to hear. It’s not reasonable for a young inductee to be called on to explain all the distinctions between the different types of objection to serve. A soldier sits opposite a conscience committee, aware of what Israel is doing in the territories, and he declares that he is a pacifist, and someone judges him and says, No, he is not a pacifist, he is actually a conscientious objector, etc.”
What did being imprisoned for such a long time do to you?
“There were plenty of moments of frustration and loneliness before I realized that I do not have to be ashamed of my stance and that I don’t have to try to be liked by the other side; that I have to feel good about my belief and be faithful to myself and my values. Once that change occurred, life became easier. I projected that to the army’s representatives and then things moved faster. After my fifth round of prison, I began to be afraid that I was serving as a pawn in the hands of all kinds of people who were sending me here for 28 days and there for 35 days, that they were really just playing with me. I understood that they could do whatever they pleased. Because I was convinced of the rightness of my path I had to pay the necessary price and pay it proudly.
“When the commander of the National Induction Center tried me, I told her that she could sentence me to however long a term she wished, but that she should remember full well that one day she would be brought to trial in an international court. She sentenced me to a long term, and when I was brought before her again she transferred the case to her superior officer.”
At the end of your struggle, did your uncle, who is also prime minister, say anything about what you did?
“Even if I were to provide an answer to that question, it would be an uninteresting answer.”